Sermon for Sunday, June 26, 2022  Third Sunday after Pentecost “Serving the Word”

Rev. Stacey Nalean-Carlson – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church    Decorah, Iowa

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott describes the origin of the book’s title. “‘Traveling mercies,’ the old people at our church said to [our preacher, Veronica] when she left [on vacation]. This is what they always say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.”

It’s a command and a promise. Traveling mercies. We can love the journey because God is with us. We can see the mercies attending us along the way—even in a week like this—and hear a sustained and sustaining word of blessing in our ears, because God is with us. No matter where our travels take us, no matter the cost, no matter how they challenge our position or perspective, God is with us. Home—safe and sound—is our journey’s end. 

Today’s theme is ‘Traveling to Serve”. I think there’s an invitation in this reading from Acts to ask how we know when service is needed, what our service is in service to, and how we are equipped for service by way of blessing. 

The Hellenists are complaining against the Hebrews because their widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of food. Remember, in those early days after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). 

But apparently, all didn’t quite mean all. 

The Hellenists were of the Jewish faith, but unlike the Hebrews they had not always lived in Judea. Instead, they had lived in other parts of the world, among people not of the Jewish faith. They spoke Greek instead of Hebrew and had surely been influenced by Greek culture and ideas. Their widows are the ones being neglected, left out, denied what they need to be well.

As people of the way, those who follow Jesus, we travel to serve—making outer and inner journeys—to move from exclusion to inclusivity, from some being worthy to all being fed. 

Service is needed wherever, and whenever; all doesn’t really mean all.

The twelve agree that there is a need to be met, a change that needs to be made, but who’s going to do it? Should they neglect the word of God to serve food instead? This is where I’d like to step into the scene and ask those twelve to clarify. Isn’t feeding vulnerable people serving the word of God? 

I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, though, because they go on to recognize a truth that’s vital to our life together. They essentially say, “Hey, we see that there’s a need here, but we can’t meet it by ourselves. If we try to do this ourselves, something will have to give and we’ll be trading one instance of neglect for an- other. But if not us, who?” 

The twelve call on the whole community of disciples to select from among themselves seven, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, to be appointed to this task. This is now a journey from recognizing need to meeting need, equipping the community more broadly to serve. The twelve pray and lay their hands on the seven and the word of God continues to spread. The service of the twelve is distinct from the service of the seven, but it’s all meaningful, needed, valuable service. The same Greek word—diakonia—is used in this passage to describe both waiting at tables and serving the word. 

So, yes, feeding vulnerable people is serving the word of God. Preaching and sharing testimony, praying and healing are serving the word of God. Advocating, protesting, making signs, and marching with pride are serving the word of God—a living word that speaks truth to power, looks to the interests of others, embraces those on the margins and overturns tables of greed and corruption. 

Our service—our baptismal journey of loving transformation—is in service to the Word of God made flesh, the one who came not to condemn but to save this weary, warring world.

Rising out of the waters of baptism, the newly baptized receives a blessing with the laying on of hands: Sustain this beloved one with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and for- ever. Later, when that baptism is affirmed, the blessing is repeated—this time asking God to stir up in this be- loved one the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

We don’t know the words of blessing that the twelve offered to the seven as they were called to a journey of service, but we do know that it involved prayer and the laying on of hands. We are equipped for service by way of blessing. That’s why every week, as we leave this experience of worship for service in the world, we receive a blessing. It’s why every night we trace the sign of the cross on our children’s foreheads and bless them with the promise that they’ve been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. 

It’s why we offer words of blessing at the ordinations of deacons (God, let your servant’s life and teaching so reflect your grace that many may come to know you and love you) and pastors (God, make her a faithful pastor, patient teacher, and wise counselor), at weddings (God, bless them so that their lives together may bear witness to your love), and when we are in need of healing (be strengthened and filled with God’s grace). We are equipped for service—in the church, in our relationships, and in our daily lives—by way of blessing.

So, traveling mercies today, beloved ones. Together we are on a journey of service, marked by blessing. The gift of the Holy Spirit is ours. Filled with faith and wisdom, we recognize where service is needed and we respond —not all in the same way, not all of us to every situation, but all in service to the Word of God, the crucified and risen Christ.

Traveling mercies, beloved ones. Here’s a blessing I wrote at the water’s edge earlier this month, with the pandemic of gun violence on my mind. It’s a blessing for us today. Bless the river. Bless the birdsong. Bless the ones who know despair. Bless the flowing sanctuary, holding every wordless prayer. Bless the winged kindred calling, “Courage. We have miles to go.” Bless the raging grief. Compel us, Love that will not let us go.

Traveling mercies today, beloved ones. You who rejoice. You who weep. You who see the need and rage with grief. “Love the journey. God is with you. Come home safe and sound.”